Be Happy – NECC Professor Considers the Science of Happiness
For those caught in a frenzy of family, work and social obligations that never seems to end, the concept of happiness can feel as elusive as the search for the holy grail. Fortunately, an expert in the Merrimack Valley has some answers.
Lizzie Linn Casanave is an adjunct professor at Northern Essex Community College in Haverhill and member of its speakers bureau. Psychologists who write about the topic often cite research indicating that 50% of happiness can be attributed to genetics, 10% to one’s current life situation and 40% to the perception of those experiences. This means that we have significant but not total control over our own happiness.
This good news, according to Casanave, applies to all ages and walks of life. “Even if happiness isn’t in your genes,” says the Arlington resident, “you can learn to cultivate it.”
Casanave, who was raised in Arkadelphia, Arkansas, says she enjoyed a “good and happy” childhood with parents who were both educators. She went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in philosophy, religion and world perspectives from Principia College in Elsah, Illinois, and a master’s degree in critical and creative thinking from the University of Massachusetts Boston.
“Happiness is such an important subject,” she says, “and I always found it fascinating that our educational system doesn’t discuss it much.”
After teaching at Northern Essex for several years, Casanave decided to face the topic head-on. In 2015, she developed a curriculum to address a need she had long detected in her students, many of whom are older than traditional college age and juggling careers and families
“The main component they hadn’t learned was how to thrive in life,” Casanave recalls.
“It’s all well and good if you’re learning history and math, but what good is all of that if you’re miserable?”
Casanave says her passion for raising awareness about the topic in the education realm was well received. Recognizing, too, that the need extended beyond the classroom, she began taking her lecture on the road.
One of the basic principles she shares in her workshops is neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to learn and change throughout our lives. This contrasts with the outdated belief that neural connections become fixed and then fade over time.
Another is positive psychology, or examining what gives our lives meaning, purpose and a sense of fulfillment. Casanave helps students accomplish this by instructing them to record three positive experiences daily in a gratitude journal. This practice can be especially effective when practiced just before bedtime, when many people are prone to worry.
“Instead of quickly jotting down, ‘Dinner with my mom, walking the dog and my son passing his test,’ ” Casanave notes, “the intention is to really put some thought into it: ‘My mom made such a nice meal for dinner, and we really got to talk. While walking the dog, the sun was out, and wasn’t that so nice after all this rain. I’m grateful my son has the opportunity to take a test and learn new information.’
“Sometimes it can feel a bit forced,” she admits, “but science says if we do it consistently, we can train our brains to focus on what’s good in our lives, as opposed to what’s bad.”
If this practice seems unnatural at first, Casanave says, that’s because human beings are biologically hardwired to focus on the negative aspects of life. With so much of our brainpower focused on survival, a positive event makes a simple impression, but a negative outcome is deeply imprinted. “It’s left over from evolution,” she says.
“So even though our survival rarely depends now on whether we come upon a clan of bears, or fall off a cliff, we still have to work against being biologically prone to being negative.”
Casanave also teaches the concept of cognitive restructuring, or learning to identify and disrupt dysfunctional views of one’s self, world or future. While a relationship breakup may seem devastating on the surface, for example, it releases both individuals who aren’t destined for marriage to find more compatible partners.
It’s also necessary to change one’s mindset if happiness cannot be attained due to external factors that are out of an individual’s control, such as getting into a particular college or earning a raise.
“I call it the ‘I’ll be happy when’ illusion,” Casanave says. “The more you’re able to develop a growth-oriented mindset, the more you’ll be able to develop resilience while focusing on the good things that are already in your life.”
To help students do that, Casanave encourages tuning out — however briefly — electronic devices and the ever-constant news cycle in favor of mindfulness meditation, or the use of breath to become fully present in the moment without judgment.
With roots in Eastern philosophies, the practice of meditation has been secularized in the U.S., where studies of regular practitioners have indicated relief from anxiety and depression, improved overall psychological well-being, and changes in the structure of the brain that regulate emotion.
Casanave cites numerous simple yet powerful guiding principles to achieving greater happiness. For example, the concept of authenticity — or living in a manner that reflects one’s beliefs and desires — may mean eschewing the traditional lens of material wealth through which success is typically viewed.
In addition, accomplishments resulting from hard work and persistence bring about lasting satisfaction and boosted confidence. Perhaps the most important factor in determining happiness, however, is a sense of meaning in life and a connection to something larger than oneself.
Casanave empathizes with those who are struggling and hopes the practical tools provided in her lectures and workshops help people feel happier despite daily challenges.
“I recognize that changing the way you think is easier said than done,” she says, “but even taking it one step at a time can make a big difference in your life.”